KEVIN LEININGER: Getting old in Indiana is bad enough without having to face it alone

Two studies reflect what it's like to be old in Indiana -- and it could be better. (AP photo)
Kevin Leininger

I’ve been hearing that old Beatles song in my head ever since I turned 64 last month and realized that thanks to Medicare I can become a ward of the state like (seemingly) everybody else in less than a year. Nothing particularly tragic or unique about that: As my five-years-younger wife always remind me, old age is still better than the alternative and, besides, Indiana’s over-65 population is expected to grow from 966,000 in 2015 to more than 1.4 million by 2030.

But what kind of life can they — I — expect? If two new studies are to be believed, Hoosiers’ golden years are too often tarnished by indifference, and worse.

As a journalist, I receive a lot of such studies and ignore most of them as superficial and, often, contradictory. But when two different sources sound the alarm about Indiana’s treatment of its seniors within only a few days of each other, it’s worth paying attention.

First, the Senior List analyzed statistics from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and concluded Indiana ranked 17th among the states in terms of nursing home complaints last year, with an average of 8.72 deficiencies per facility, resulting in more than $1 million in penalties.

Indiana fared even worse in SeniorLiving.org study on the “Most Dangerous States for Seniors.” Drawing on data from the Centers for Disease Control, the report showed the state placed 31st in terms of overall violent deaths (17.1 among 100,000 seniors), including 21st in homicides and 32nd in suicides. Nationwide, non-fatal assaults against seniors were up 55 percent between 2002 and 2016.

The studies offer few obvious conclusions regarding specific states. The 10 most dangerous states for seniors include Nevada, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana, Arizona, Oregon, Alaska, Idaho, Colorado and West Virginia, but only a few of them also make the list of the 10 states with greatest number of deficiencies per nursing home: Washington, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Delaware, California, Alaska, Oregon, Michigan and Virginia. And, to be fair, Indiana’s place in both polls is neither terrible nor exemplary. Not that mediocrity is something to be prized.

But my purpose here is not to analyze the statistics (the violence study does point out certain racial and, presumably, economic factors) but to suggest an admittedly old-fashioned solution that has already been proven effective regardless of ethnicity, geography, financial status and various other demographic factors:

For all of its perceived benefits, there is little doubt that increased societal mobility has isolated seniors from their children, with elder care evolving from a familial enterprise into a business usually subsidized by the government or other third parties.

Growing up in Fort Wayne, my father’s parents lived just a couple miles away and my maternal grandparents lived with my parents and three siblings in our three-bedroom house in Village Woods. It was crowded, and I’m sure the arrangement created problems for my parents that were beyond my childish ability to comprehend, but my grandparents didn’t have to worry about the quality of care they were receiving or falling prey to violence. The family cared for them out of love, not financial or legal obligation. Later, after Mom had her fifth child and we moved into a larger house, Dad’s mom lived with us for a time.

Even today, I and my four siblings all live in the Fort Wayne area, which allowed us to watch over our parents as they developed the inevitable maladies of age. And after Dad died in 2001, Mom moved in with my sister and her family until she died just a month later. That’s the sort of thing families used to do regularly, and occasionally still do: My wife and I made it clear to her Dad he was welcome to live with us toward the end of his life, and she quit her job to help care for him. Our elderly next door neighbor would no doubt be living in a nursing home by now if her children were not there constantly to visit and maintain the property.

But who watches the parents when the children move far away, or there are no children?

Nursing homes have their place, of course, and the facility my father-in-law called home near the end of his life was a loving and well-run Christian facility. But even then we visited often and brought him to our home for Sunday dinner on an almost weekly basis. He, like my parents. did not die alone.

It’s often said that Fort Wayne is a “great place to raise a family,” and people will define that phrase differently. But imagine how life might improve for Hoosiers young and old alike if more of us rediscovered the traditional obligations of family, friendship and service over self — and the joys that come with it.

But I’ll worry about that later. For now, at least my wife — with apologies to Paul McCartney — promises to go on needing me and feeding me.

For more information about the studies, go to https://www.seniorliving.org/research/most-dangerous-states/ and https://www.theseniorlist.com/data/state-nursing-home-quality/

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.